Here’s a question from Dana in Birmingham:
I’ve been wondering why are so many [Jane Austen] enthusiasts talking about Frankenstein? I thought you might have some ideas on this because there are a lot of Gothic ideas in your novel.
Great question, Dana!
The reason why Gothic flavours invade Persuasion‘s landscape in The Widow’s Fire is because of the enormous contrast between the two worlds.
Gothic literature — which can be briefly characterized as incorporating lurid or ghostly themes, metaphysical explorations, or a preoccupation with death and decay — is so far removed from Austen’s sensibilities that she acknowledges its existence only through satire.
In Persuasion, grief- stricken Captain Benwick broods day and night over his departed fiancée, reading morbid poetry, only to fall gleefully in love with someone else at the earliest opportunity. Catherine Morland’s Gothic intrigues in Northanger Abbey are merely symptoms of her immaturity. So Jane really didn’t have all that much time for Gothic fiction.
Gothic literature existed before, during, and after Jane Austen’s productive period. Frankenstein was published in 1818, a year after Jane Austen’s death, and the same year Persuasion was posthumously brought into the world. But while gender and anniversaries have conspired to group Austen and Shelley together of late, they are, as writers, as far from each other as it is possible to get.
Austen’s work is about making sense of the nuances of conduct in the extraordinarily constricted world in which the author herself lived. Frankenstein values physical adventure, the exhilaration of travel, and active political involvement. Shelley, like her philosopher mother Mary Wollstonecraft, was a feminist before the term itself was coined.
And Frankenstein is a coded feminist novel.
One overarching metaphor in Frankenstein is a critique of the story of Eve as presented through Christian dogma. Frankenstein‘s creature is made (it is implied) from bits and pieces of cadavers (think Adam’s rib) then becomes an object of horror to everyone it comes across. Though denied love and nurturing, the creature gets the education it needs by stealth, reading a purloined copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost and other key works of western culture at the time. When the creature takes over the narrative in the novel, it shocks both the reader and its creator with its eloquence.
This is very far from the drawing room of Mansfield Park and begs the question what would Jane Austen have thought of Frankenstein had she lived long enough to read the novel?
Instinct suggests two possible answers, as opposite to each other as the authors themselves.
First the negative: While Austen’s novels show no obvious signs of religious devotion, Shelley’s allegorical attack on Christian orthodoxy would surely have been seen by Austen, the daughter of a clergyman, as extreme. Even if the ‘creation of woman’ myth bypasses the reader, Frankenstein still reads like the work of a religious skeptic: A mad scientist creates, then callously abandons, his creature. The implication from Shelley is that, if a Christian god exists, this is surely how He has treated us all. This feeling becomes more powerful as most readers’ empathy is drawn more to the abandoned creature than to any other character.
All in all, hardly Regency society’s model of propriety.
On the plus side, however, Austen did understand audacity, and she appreciated it too. Her humour comes from this quality more than any other; she put a radical kind of wit into the mouths of some of her most likeable heroines, Pride and Prejudice‘s Elizabeth Bennet, for instance. She saw nothing wrong in a young woman’s observations cutting conventional logic to ribbons if the logic was faulty.
More importantly, the creature’s story in Frankenstein is also Austen’s story, as much as it is any woman author’s story from the period. Her brilliance had to be hidden from human view. When Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811 it was credited to “a Lady”; its follow up, Pride and Prejudice, was attributed to “The author of Sense and Sensibility”.
Though on opposite poles in many ways both authors are connected by a common theme. Eloquence, from some quarters, is an illicit quality. Perhaps this is why, 200 years on, we tend to put Frankenstein’s creature and Jane Austen together.